digital rhetoric Higher Education Rhetoric/Composition

Live online debates on digital composition in FYC

CCC will be hosting a live online conversation March 4th at 4pm involving Cynthia Selfe and Doug Hesse on this subject. The conversation stems from an article Selfe published last year in CCC and Hesse's response (and Selfe's response to his response) in the latest issue of the journal. The conversation has to do with whether or not digital, non-textual composition has a place in FYC. On this issue I have one main thing to say:

Have this debate now while you have the chance…

Because by the end of the decade the question of whether or not composition is inclusive of non-textual communication will be moot. Of course such courses may not be taught by rhet/comp specialists, who by that time may have become a field that only studies historical forms of communication. Meanwhile digital media scholars and digital humanists are springing up all around us, and it will be their graduate students who will serve as TAs and teach students to compose in the prevailing contemporary media. Or perhaps we'll just abandon FYC altogether, and the abolitionists will get their way, though maybe not in the manner they expected.

Here are two ways to look at it. 

1. For decades we have included the analysis of non-textual media (advertisements, television, film, etc.). Why? Because we realize that significant rhetorical work is going on in these media throughout our culture. Is there any debate among compositionists (or other humanists) that our students ought to have a critical understanding of such media? Or that such matters are appropriate subjects for FYC? I think not. In more recent years, we have expanded to include the analysis of the web. Again, I don't think there's any debate that our students need a critical-rhetorical understanding of web media or that such is an appropriate subject for FYC.

So the debate does not seem to surround the rhetorical-cultural significance of such media, only whether or not students need (or would benefit from) a rhetorical-cultural understanding that extends beyond the consumption of such media to its production/composition.

2. In 2000, I think it is fair to say that web-based pedagogy was uncommon to rare in FYC or even in higher education. In the late 90s I was using newsgroups. There was no CMS at Albany in the mid-90s when I was there. We had only begun to pilot one at Georgia Tech in the late 90s. And at the beginning of the decade at Cortland, we had a Title III grant to pay faculty to become trained in using Web CT. So few faculty were using the web for anything. Obviously blogs and wikis (though existent) were essentially unknown. There was no YouTube or iTunes or iPods. Even texting was uncommon at the beginning of the decade. Furthermore, such things were not common in business or politics (remember how revolutionary Howard Dean's campaign was?)

Today virtually any college student has the technical capacity to compose and publish text, image, audio, and/or video online. They do these things in a very basic way all the time when they upload photos to Facebook or share music with their friends. Millions of people around the world have blogs, contribute to wikis, post on discussions, upload photos to Flickr, share videos on YouTube. These activities are a common part of political and civic discourses. They are a regular business practice.

Given where we were in 2000, where do we imagine we will be in 2020?

I admit to being perplexed by the argument that says we should continue to focus solely on teaching students to write the 5-page, double-spaced essay. Why focus on that one curious historical moment as the standard for how rhetoric and composition should be taught? And we do realize that that is all that that is, right? Just a genre in time? Why not argue that we should abandon writing and just teach speaking? Why have we taught writing rather than public speaking as our primary focus for nearly a century?

Well, because print-based writing was the dominant form of professional, civic, and intellectual throughout the 20th century.

And today? And in 10 years? Are we intellectually capable of getting our minds around the fact that writing essays is a historically and materially contingent practice that will not last forever?

So let me pose a hypothetical situation. If in your program, you had a cadre of instructors who were skilled at digital media composition and you had the physical-material resources you needed to teach digital composition, would you include it in your FYC program next year?

I think you would. I don't think you'd abandon writing texts. There's no reason to. But there's also no reason for students not to combine text with other media in compositions.

So let's face it. The main reason why we would entertain the argument that digital composition "shouldn't" be part of FYC is that we are not prepared to say that it should. We are not prepared to consider the implications of saying that it should.  And the main implication of saying that we should be including digital composition in FYC right now is that we TOTALLY FAILED as a discipline 10 years ago, when we should have realized that digital composition would be integral to FYC and we should have begun preparing faculty and establishing material resources to meet that demand.

So again, I ask, where do we think we'll be in 2020? How are we going to get there?

Enjoy the "debate" while you can.